About Jenifer Sunrise Winter, Ph.D.: Jenifer Sunrise Winter is the Graduate Chair of the School of Communications at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she also teaches courses as an Associate Professor. As Chair, Dr. Winter advises students in the program, supports faculty, oversees recruitment and admissions, engages in curriculum development, and connects students to alumni. Her research focuses on the use of communication and information technologies for social mobilization and change, as well as the social, political, and ethical implications of the international expansion of digital communication technologies, including big data, artificial intelligence, and the dynamics of the Internet.

Dr. Winter is also the Co-Director of the Pacific Information and Communication Technology for Development Collaborative (PICTDC), which is an organization that advocates for the study of academic and applied research programs concerning impact of information and communication technologies in the Pacific region on social, economic, and political situations. The PICTDC also promotes the use of communication technology for social good, diversity, sustainability, and public discourse.

She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies with a minor in Philosophy from Occidental College. She received both her Master of Library and Information Sciences and her Ph.D. in Communication and Information Sciences from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Master of Arts in Communication program, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and what are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?

[Dr. Winter] The Master of Arts in Communication program is a 33-credit master’s degree that provides students with a strong foundation in communication theories and principles, and provides them with the opportunity to build expertise in organizational, intercultural, and international communication, as well as new media technologies and contemporary journalism. We offer a diverse range of courses and specialization options, but what unites our curriculum is a deep scholarly interest in how technology has shaped and reshaped human communication, and a commitment to applying communication research to improve society, the economy, and political engagement. Communication ethics and communication for social good are major themes in our curriculum.

Students take two foundation courses, Communication Theories and Communication Inquiry, as well as two core courses from one or more of our areas of specialization: Organizational and Intercultural Communication, Telecommunication and New Media, and Global Communication and Journalism. Finally, they are required to take a Communication Topics seminar, which varies depending on the faculty member teaching it and his or her area of expertise. While we have these three broad areas of specialization, students are not required to click into any one of them—rather, it is more to provide them with some guidance or structure. Electives in our program include an advanced research seminar, information and communication technology policy and planning, and strategic communication, among others. Students can take a variety of classes like social media, global communication and journalism, and intercultural communication, and can mix and match their electives as they see fit. The final six credits of the program is a capstone, which can be either a thesis or a practicum. There is room to also do creative projects (i.e., media productions) within the thesis option, and the flexibility of this option makes it a very popular one amongst our students.

Oftentimes students have a pretty good idea of the kinds of classes they want to take and why, and we as faculty are there to guide them. For example, if a student is interested in learning a lot more about public relations and wants to work in that area, they will take classes like the strategic organizational communication course as well as an intercultural course and social media. Students also have the flexibility to take classes from other departments that are related to their thesis, project, or independent work, with their advisor’s approval. We’ve had students take electives in computer science, business, and Hawaiian studies.

We currently have a student who is really interested in organizational communication, and who has worked a lot in developing inclusivity-focused marketing material. We don’t have designated marketing classes, so she is taking two classes at our business school, and is considering having a third member of her committee come from the graduate faculty within that specialty.

Another area that is relatively new and about which we are really excited is animation experience, and this is an area that students often combine with other disciplines both in communication and in related fields. One of our students is deeply immersed in the traditional, theoretical and methodological concepts inherent to our program, but also wants to study Ōlelo Hawai’i, which is the native Hawaiian language. He took a great class last semester on Ōlelo Hawai’i, which concerned traditional tales about Hawaii, and he is actually creating an animation that will be in native Hawaiian. Our faculty in games and other forms of media are able to inform his animation work, but we didn’t have somebody that had that deep cultural expertise in Hawaiian history and culture. So we brought in someone from a different department who specializes in Hawaiian traditions and lore to come in and be on his committee, and allowed him to a class with that faculty member.

As these examples illustrate, we really work individually with students to help them craft a course of study that matches their individual needs and interests. We want to ensure that they are fully supported and empowered in what they want to explore and achieve in our program. We also provide a lot of guidance to students, both through formal advising structures and through ad hoc mentorship. If a student comes to us and wants to take a class, we definitely talk to them about how it fits into their plan to make sure that it serves them well. While we try to be as flexible as possible, we do also have certain guidelines and standards to make sure that they have a good experience and are taking classes and finding mentors that will be beneficial for their thesis or practicum.

[MastersinCommunications.com] The University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Master of Arts in Communication program offers students the option of completing a master’s thesis or a communication practicum for their final graduation requirement. Could you please elaborate on these two options, and what they entail?

[Dr. Winter] The two options historically have been plan A, which is thesis, and plan B, which is the practicum. In practice, those have often blended to some degree, which we allow as we are very flexible and work to help students tailor their final requirement to their personal interests and goals. In both the thesis and the practicum options, students have an individual advisor and committee of faculty whom they select. The chair of the committee is their individual advisor, and the two other faculty members are readers of their thesis and secondary advisors.

The thesis, as mentioned previously, is very flexible. We have quite a few students who want to do traditional research theses. These are typically the students who might want to go into a PhD or use academic research in an applied sense, and want to structure their thesis very traditionally with a hypothesis/research questions, methods, results, and discussion/conclusions. We also have a small but emerging group of media arts students who still want the critical rigor of our theoretical and methodological curriculum, but who also want to apply their research project to video production, game design, and other creative or industry-focused disciplines. We have three faculty who specialize in those areas who have supported students in such projects. We also have students who wish to design and implement organizational interventions. In these cases, they are still writing a long analysis with theoretical background, but the end result is more industry-focused. Typically, we work with these students to align their desired project under option A.

Additionally, we have a smaller number of students who have done projects that integrate, not just communication theory and research, but also research in other related disciplines, like applied policy studies or a mixed organizational intervention. So, as you can see, it really depends on the faculty committee working with the students to design their individual project.

Plan B is the practicum, which in my experience has been more rare than the thesis/project option. Students who opt for the practicum will select a position that functions as an internship, but their capstone is a written and analysis of the work they’ve undertaken and its relation to their future career. As with the thesis, what the internship is comprised of and its deliverables depend upon the committee and the student’s specific interests and goals.

Students start working on their final graduation requirement well before their final term. In our theory and methods classes that students take in their first year, students are presented with a variety of epistemologies and pragmatic possibilities, and they work out several possible ideas that they then work on with their advisors to develop into their thesis or practicum.

We have a student who recently completed a wonderful thesis under Dr. Kim who is our PR specialist. This student really wanted to understand millennials’ views about the social media and video outreach that universities were using in their alumni program, because she’s actually working with the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Alumni Association. Dr. Kim and the committee helped lead her through relevant theories and research design, and she ended up creating something very pragmatic that she then presented to the university administration, and now other parties are using it to design campaigns. And at the same time that it was a valuable strategic model, it was also a research project that could be submitted for publication.

We had another student who presented to the International Communication Association last year and won an award in the Games Division. She had started out thinking more about completing an intercultural intervention, but ended up doing an ethnographic study about people playing the online game “Warframe.” Students work closely with their committee to tell them what they’re interested in, and their committee helps them figure out what is going to add research and methodological rigor to it, or how they can map their interests to a practical project.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Master of Arts in Communication program, and how can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems? Additionally, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of this program?

[Dr. Winter] At the beginning of their enrollment in the program, students receive an initial advisor (called the “interim advisor”) who starts to help guide them through navigating the program, and who serves as a touchpoint for them during their first year. In some cases, the interim advisor ends up being a student’s main advisor who also supports them in their thesis/practicum; however, usually by the end of the year and after having met numerous faculty through classes and graduate orientation, students gain a sense of the kind of research or work they would like to do, and which faculty members resonate with those interests.

We encourage students to meet as many people as possible during their first year in the program in order to identify a potential chair so that they can begin talking to them about ideas at the end of the second semester. We put structures in place to make this socializing easy. For example, we host numerous social events throughout the term, and provide coffee and snacks in the Graduate Lounge where faculty members are also having coffee. The Lounge is a great space, with a coffee machine and comfortable furniture to linger, have discussions, and work. If you’re sitting there studying for a couple of hours you’re going see half of our faculty. And they might say hi and ask how you’re doing. Our faculty do come to orientation to introduce themselves and meet the new class, so they more than likely already know who you are. So, we do our best to set structures in place so those mentoring relationships just happen organically.

We definitely have a strong advising component in our program, and we do our best to make sure that faculty are available to students early on in their enrollment. To get the most out of our program, I strongly advise that students be present, not just for their classes, but also department events. If you barely come to campus except to attend classes, you will not get as much out of the program as you would if you come around once in a while to hang out in the graduate student lounge, or go to meet professors during their office hours.

What I tell students at the orientation and whenever I’m talking to them is that they aren’t going to meet all of their key mentors in classes; rather, it is the meetings outside of classes—the study sessions, the orientation, professors’ office hours—that are crucial in building their mentorship network. Our faculty are in the building all the time, and come to our grad student events that we have, such as mixers. So, my advice is don’t be shy, and to go and learn about the type of research that they do. In addition to their primary area of expertise, faculty also have other sub-interests that might make them great committee members or even the chair of your committee. Our professors really want to support students in taking their own direction. We encourage them to ask themselves questions such as, “Which professors do I resonate with intellectually and professionally, and what am I interested in doing in the program and after?”

The advisor-mentee relationship is very student-directed, and in that way is quite similar to Ph.D. programs, which ask the student to take the initiative to reach out to professors whose research expertise aligns with their interests. Once a student has identified faculty who might match their research interests and curiosities, he or she might meet with one of them and explain, for example, “I’m really interested in how social media is used in this particular election in Asia.” And then the faculty member will guide them in building their specific research inquiry: “What kinds of classes have you taken that relate to this event, and what theories do you feel will be useful in your research? What have you found in the literature so far on this topic? What are your goals after graduation and how will this project help you get there?” The faculty member also gives students particular guidelines about what is expected in their research proposal.

In addition, there are several great career resources on campus. I would say at the grad level usually your advisor and committee are your primary mentors in the program, but students can consult and seek mentorship from any of the faculty, even if they’re not on their committee. We have students who are applying for PhD programs, and others who go into other more professional master’s programs afterwards, such as law, education, or information science. A lot of our students want to enter the job market or advance in their current career path. So, depending on what their needs are, we talk with students early on in their enrollment to come up with an action plan to help them achieve their goals. We also stay connected to our students long after they graduate. Of the master’s students that I’ve chaired in the last five or six years, I know where each of them is and what they’re doing in their jobs, because I refer students to them and also often advise them on their career path.

We frequently connect students to both our own professional networks and to companies who contact us with information about openings. Oftentimes we will get emails from people saying, “We’re looking for someone who does X,” and we’ll share that on the student list. For our students who want to go into a Ph.D. program, their advisors will guide them through the key strategies for applying to their target doctorate programs.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Master of Arts in Communication program?

[Dr. Winter] I think this is true with any program that you apply to: look and see what classes are offered and who the faculty are. Occasionally we get a stellar application where we wonder if the applicant was aware that we don’t have a faculty member who does anything related to what he or she is passionate about. For example, public speaking is an area that most of our faculty do not specialize in; though we do, of course, use public speaking in our careers. Our faculty tend to be focused on other topics within communication. Talking about your goals to study an area that we do not specialize in signals a mismatch and indicates that you do not plan to do your research on what we can offer you.

We look for an interesting mix of people in each cohort, so don’t be afraid to be candid and show some interesting facets of yourself. We have a variety of students who apply–different ages, some with military backgrounds, some with many years of professional experience, as well individuals fresh out of school. Giving us an idea of who you are as a person, your background, what impassions you and why, is not only compelling, but also helpful because we use your application to see how we as a faculty team can best support you. We also recommend illustrating your intellectual preparation for the program and what your aspirations are. All of those things together really help us to figure out whether you would be a good fit for our program.

I definitely encourage prospective students to reach out to me with any questions they may have about the program. I’d say I talk to at least a dozen prospective students every year, and I welcome any and all questions about the program, because when you’re better informed you can put forth a stronger application. Our faculty are also incredibly open to speaking with prospective students. If you’re not sure whether this program would be a great fit for you, we can Skype or have a phone call, and I can tell you about our program. Many of my colleagues welcome direct calls from potential students. I’ll often hear back from my colleagues who tell me that a prospective student reached out to them and asked questions and they had this engaged conversation with them. We are very candid about what our faculty’s areas of expertise are, because we want to make sure that, when someone comes to our program, they’re going to get the kind of mentorship and education that they deserve.

We also are happy to connect applicants to current students or recent graduates. And if applicants are able to come physically to campus then we have also had students who set up lunches with prospective students, as well as tours of the campus where they talk in-depth about the program. Several of our MA students have volunteered this year to come to the orientation and meet all the incoming students and make them feel welcome to the program. We have an incredibly open and mutually supportive student and faculty culture that extends to our prospective students.

Another thing that prospective applicants should keep in mind is that the University of Hawaii at Manoa offers funding by way of graduate assistantships. We have a lot of relationships all over campus with other departments that really want our GAs. Students from the School of Communications work all over campus because typically people want the types of skills that our students have, including writing and media skills, or strategic communication skills, technology or organizational skills.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Master of Arts in Communication unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Dr. Winter] I think one of the things that makes us stand out is that we have a lot of vibrant faculty members who are at the cutting edge of the communication industry. Our faculty are in tune with the latest developments in the field, and can cater to students’ very current interests. For example, we just hired a digital game specialist, and students are flocking to her. We choose our faculty very carefully, looking for people who have a balance between academic expertise and industry experience.

Our program has been around since the early 1970s, and with this legacy comes a very strong and longstanding alumni network. We have countless alumni all over the world who are in a wide variety of jobs, some of whom are in very senior positions after 30 years out of our program, and others who are in mid-level management or who are thriving in their career change since graduating. This diversity is really helpful to students, as many of these alumni are happy to chat with students about their career path. When a student in the program expresses interest in a particular career, I’ll often refer him or her to one of the alumni I know in their area of interest, and to date I’ve never had anyone say no, I don’t want to talk.

I would say that another thing that sets us apart from many other programs is that we do have a strong technology focus. Most of our faculty have some interest in Internet or media systems, and they are particularly interested in connecting communication technologies to other contexts, such as intercultural communication, the history of communication, strategic communication, and more. So, students who are really interested in modern information systems or media production, and also want a program with excellent theoretical rigor, would find our program to be a great fit. Similarly, students who want to work in the more media-focused aspects of strategic communication, such as public relations, have to understand that this field has been transformed largely by social media. We do have three graduate faculty specializing in journalism. And that can be a really big appeal for students who want to work in public interest journalism.

In addition, we have strong and productive relationships with our doctoral program, which means that our master’s students benefit from the insight of our Ph.D. students. Our Ph.D. program is truly interdisciplinary in the sense that it is also co-sponsored by computer science, information and library science, as well as information technology management (in the Shidler School of Business). So that’s something that gives us a really interesting model that in some ways radiates to the master’s program.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for students in terms of successfully navigating their graduate school experience, and making the most of the opportunities presented to them?

[Dr. Winter] I believe it is important for students to understand that once they are enrolled, they are entering a community of scholars and practitioners who can help them push their boundaries. I recommend that students really try to situate themselves to learn the norms and skills of their desired profession, and to learn and adapt to the expectations of their field.

I really encourage students, no matter what their actual expected job in the future, to try to think about publication in some form or another to build their portfolio. We have some students who have submitted publications to journals as the first author, but even attending conferences or writing a book review is a great way to engage with the academic side of the community and stretch yourself a little bit. We regularly give graduate students funding from our department to go to conferences, which can be fantastic learning opportunities. We had a student go to Prague this summer with joint funding from our department and the Graduate Student Organization.

Part of making the most of the opportunities available is starting to think a little more courageously about what you feel you are capable of, and what you are willing to explore. I encourage students to self-reflect and be engaged as early as possible to get the most out of their time here.

Thank you, Dr. Jenifer Sunrise Winter, for your excellent insight into the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Master of Arts in Communication program!